How I Began to Know My Father
My father was a religious man, probably more religious than he would have been had he not emigrated from Iran and married an American woman. He carried the heavy responsibility of passing on beliefs and traditions to his four half-breed children. So when I was fourteen and said I wanted to do the Ramadan fast with him, he was very pleased. I had an ulterior motive. Living in the States, I thought fasting would seem exotic to my friends at school, all of whom had never heard of Iran or Islam until I told them about it. Really. This was in the early seventies.
That first night, my father got me out of bed at four in the morning to eat dinner. My excitement about the whole business was markedly diminished by the coal black darkness of a new moon sky and the even breaths of my sister nestled warmly under her quilt. I’d spent the previous evening tossing superior glances at her; now I just felt irritated.
I stumbled to the dining room where my father removed our plates from beneath the bubble top of an electric warming tray. My mother had earlier arranged chicken cutlets, rice, and a mound of overcooked peas on our plates — this was what everyone had eaten for dinner the night before. My father sat in his flannel pajamas and leather slippers, his plate and glass of water before him. I sat to his right and contemplated my food. My stomach churned.
“I’m not hungry,” I said, shoving the food around with my fork, feeling shy and nervous and wary of showing my aggravation; my father and I hardly ever shared a quiet room together.
“It is the first night,” he said, loading his mouth with a balanced forkful of meat, rice, and vegetable. “You will get used to it. Eat. What you don’t eat now will haunt you tomorrow.”
He was right. Skipping breakfast was a cinch, but by lunchtime, I was salivating over the odor of cafeteria food and grinding my teeth at the sound of soda cans being opened. I fell asleep during Spanish class and had a dry coughing fit in Geometry. After volleyball practice, I allowed myself the vivid image of clawing the faces of my friends who drank from the water fountain. What’s worse, nobody at school seemed even mildly interested in my sacrifice to ritual. To them, my fasting wasn’t exotic, just weird.
The month of Ramadan goes by the Arabic calendar which is lunar, so every year it falls about eleven days sooner than the year before, which means, if you’re lucky, it falls in autumn or winter when the days are short and sundown comes early, but unlucky if it falls during August when the days are interminable and hot and the only way to get through it is to nap for three or four hours in the afternoon. I remember a summertime when we were living in Tehran — how the fasting members of our large household were treated with great respect (and a good measure of distance if you didn’t want to get your head snapped off).
Despite the difficulties and disillusionments that pricked at my resolve that first day, I joined my father for the following middle-of-the-night meal. Again, I had little appetite. He frowned. “Eat and I will tell you a story,” he said. I was shocked. My father was a man who cultivated traditional patriarchy: that meant instilling fear, maintaining distance, and speaking to us in lecture form. Storytelling was a woman’s job. I swallowed a spoonful of lamb stew and immediately took another mouthful.
Over the next few nights, while we ate our dinner and also while we broke our fast at sundown — first sipping boiled water from a small tea glass, then slurping hot rice cereal, and finally gorging ourselves on warm ginger bread with goat’s cheese and honey — my father told me stories of his childhood. Of a charcoal brazier covered with a thick quilt under which his family would sit in the cold of winter, snuggling their legs together to stay warm. Of the homing pigeons he bred on their roof. Of his beloved wet nurse, his uncle the carpet maker, and his younger brother to whom he always offered two rials to accompany him to the outhouse in the middle of the dark night. And of his own father, who beat him, and his frail and seemingly dutiful mother whose secretive machinations allowed him to sneak out to the cinema on Thursday nights.
That winter when I was fourteen, I managed to fast for only four days, just one tenth of the [prescribed] amount of time. The final straw came when I inadvertently popped a chocolate chip cookie crumb into my mouth one afternoon. Our Iranian housekeeper, watching my face fall into a pout of deep guilt and self-disappointment, threw her head back and laughed. “It is okay,” she said. “You are American girl.” Well, I’d had my flirtation with religious ritual.
I thought my father would be angry, disappointed at the very least. He wasn’t. “You did well,” he said. “You learned about hunger, sacrifice, willpower.” True. But mostly, I’d learned about him.
And now, every year when I look up at a cobalt blue sky decorated with the brilliant white crescent of the new moon and one gleaming star, I think of the simplicity of that Islamic ritual I once practiced. I’m not a Muslim anymore. The Islamic Revolution did that for me. The brutality of a fundamentalist theocracy drove me, in shame and anger, away from religion. The simplicity is gone, devoured by sanctimonious, power-passioned men in robes and turbans. I keep my faith personal, write my own book of commandments, and create those simple, meaningful rituals — so like that Ramadan forty years ago, when I first began to know my father.
This is a mildly revised essay that I originally read on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ and that later appeared in the anthology Face to Face: Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening.